When to fire a preacher and change the locks on the door.

It never fails.

We’ll write something about pastors who are under pressure from wrong-headed church members and how they should stand tall and be strong, and someone will respond with a “Yes, but” scenario.

Their preacher is a terror, they’ll say. Or an embezzler or adulterer or a bully of the first rank.  Several have told me how their pastors have serious illnesses which have incapacitated them for ministry, but who insist on clinging to their pastoral jobs (along with the paycheck) to the detriment of the church. “People are leaving in droves,” they say.

What to do?

You get the impression that people think this is a new thing. Or that being as pro-pastor as I am (unabashedly!), I do not see that some preachers should be sent to pasture and immediately. (My cartooning mind wants to make a remark about sending a pastor to pasture, but I think I’ll pass.)

Nothing about any of this is new.

The Pope fired an archbishop recently for overspending. He’d built a new residence for himself, something along the order that would have made Queen Elizabeth ashamed of Buckingham Palace, I gather.  The Pope thought such a shepherd has relinquished the right to be called a servant and minister of his people. No argument there.

The papal lesson was so well-learned that a Catholic bishop in Georgia promptly announced he was putting his new mansion on the market and would be purchasing something a little less lavish.

When preachers and priests cross the line, it’s time to go.

The question is: Where’s the line?

At what point has the preacher crossed it? And when should the leadership and/or the congregation flag him for the violation and toss him out of the game. (Sorry. I’m missing football.)

There is an answer to this. There is “a line” which should not be crossed, and there is a time when any preacher should be cut loose and sent packing.

And the short answer is something like this:

When the minister breaks faith, he’s gone.  That is, when he violates the contract between himself, the church, and the Lord.

What contract? If there is a written contract, as unspiritual as that sounds to some of us, the lines are clearer and the decisions simpler. But in most cases, the contract is implied and unstated.  It’s there, nonetheless.

The preacher and the leadership knew why he was being brought in.  Usually, it’s something like: To provide godly leadership to the church, to preach God’s Word, to disciple the membership, and lead the congregation to carry the gospel to the world.

Our “contract” has to be large and it has to be general.

When the preacher violates that agreement in no uncertain terms, he is through.

However, contracts of understanding–which is really what we are talking about here–can be renegotiated.  And probably should be, every few years.

The pastor of Shiloh No. 2 is brought in to do everything imaginable. As the congregation grows (and eventually changes its name to Calvary), the expectations on him change. Now, with a staff to administer, he should give direction to the other ministers, do more administration, and share the pastoral load.  Eventually, as the congregation grows and changes and their locations multiply (and they change their name once again, this time to something hip like CoolChurch or Mountaintop), the pastor’s role changes yet again.  He is the main preacher, hires an administrator, and brings in other ministers to help pastor such a diverse (and spread out) membership.

Okay, back to the point.

Principle Number One: In 90 percent of the cases, when the pastor is not living up to the expectations and meeting the needs of the congregation, terminating him is wrong. 

What he needs–and what every good church must have–is a small team of lay leaders who function as his right arm when things are going well and are ready to meet with him when they are not.

Without that team, that is, when a congregation has no lay leadership willing to walk into the pastor’s study and talk straight (and lovingly!) to him, the church is in serious trouble.

If the pastor is simply preaching poor sermons or spending too much time with a hobby, this leadership band meets with him.  They lovingly but firmly express their concern. Unless he has concrete for a brain (and thus a sidewalk for a heart!), the pastor will read the handwriting on the wall and make some changes quick.

Principle Number Two: The time to get such a small team of lay leaders is when the church is functioning well.

When the church is healthy and no problems are on the horizon is the ideal time to make plans for a storm.  No one has a turf to protect, no personalities will be exposed, no objections should arise.

Principle Number Three: The pastor should take the lead in establishing such a team.

Why would he want to do this?  After all, isn’t this just another headache for him? (It can be. He must work with the team not to let that happen.)

Out of concern for the church, now and in the future, the pastor must take the initiative in protecting the Lord’s flock.

He will not always pastor this church.  One day, God willing, he will move on to another assignment or retire, and someone else will come in. What if things go wrong? (That has been known to happen.)

A faithful shepherd will help prepare his people for dealing with ungodly leadership.  Otherwise, he is failing them at the most basic level.

Principle Number Four: You fire the pastor (and change the locks!) only in dire circumstances.

The pastor leaves his wife and moves in with some other woman, he is gone. Immediately.  He is not given a few Sundays to say farewell or any kind of forum with the congregation. He is out.

The pastor is charged with a crime (we’re not talking about a parking ticket!) and makes the news.  The leadership team goes into action, does its own investigation, and makes a recommendation as to whether the preacher stays or leaves.

The pastor announces from the pulpit one Sunday–and I saw this happen–that “I no longer believe the basic doctrines of the Christian church. Before I leave to become a minister in The Liberal Denomination (my term), I will spend the next four Sundays preaching about my spiritual journey.”  The leadership informed him that very afternoon that he would not be preaching in that church on anything, that he was out immediately. And he was. As he should have been.

The pastor is seriously ill and the church has been supportive and patient for a long time.  But now the congregation is suffering and people are leaving.  Either the pastor should be retired with honors and appreciation–but with as much continued financial support as the church can give–or he should be put on indefinite leave and an interim brought in.

Principle Number Five: Since it’s impossible to cover all scenarios and give answers to every possibility, the leadership team must be composed of a small group of godly, humble, and courageous men and women.

Men and women. Do not miss this.  Even if your church is the fundamentalist-est one in your denomination and women are not allowed to do anything but bring casseroles, you need their counsel and insights into the pastor’s situation.  To deprive the congregation of their input and their voice is to run great risks.  (To the naysayer who objects to “putting a woman in authority over the God-called pastor,” we answer: This is not about authority over anyone. The issue here is servanthood and submission. See Ephesians 5:21. And no one knows more about this than the women!)

Godliness, humility, and courage: The three traits of the leadership team.  Godliness is spirituality and Christlikeness; humility means no one has an axe to grind and everyone is willing to do whatever it takes; courage is the strength to face the preacher and then face the congregation, and do it all for Jesus’ sake.

Principle Number Six: Once a member of the leadership team decides “The pastor has done nothing wrong but I no longer support him,” they should resign and be replaced. 

Replaced with whom? Someone godly, humble, and courageous.

There is no more powerful or influential member of any church than some sweet-spirited nobody who fears no one but the Lord and nothing but His displeasure. That’s somebody you want on the leadership team.

Principle Number Seven:  Those who should never be appointed to the leadership team include a) anyone who thinks he deserves it, b) anyone who wants authority over the pastor, and c) anyone who loves his opinion best of all.

He who would be great among you, church members, should be your servant.

That’s a pretty good rule of thumb for ten thousand things.







3 thoughts on “When to fire a preacher and change the locks on the door.

  1. Excellent comments… I agree that every pastor needs to have a group of trusted leaders around him. Sort of a limited church council?

    Sometimes the problems are perceptions– and perceptions can be corrected, shaped, or improved. Perceptions can be 100% correct, 100% wrong– or a mixed level of correct and wrong!

  2. My Dear Dr., Rev., and Brother,
    I am referring to the article you wrote another place on Why Preachers are Like they are. In our world seemingly dominated by a robust youthful input on how things are done, (and I’m thankful for it) it was cool water to my soul to hear what can only come from the sage, seasoned and exquisite words from one whose been there….for years and done that. Thank you for your voice coming from today but from years ago! Blessings!

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